Causal Explanation and Metaphysical Explanation

My primary research program combines philosophy of language, metaphysics, and philosophy of science. It focuses on the relationship between causal explanations and explanations involving 'grounding' or 'fundamentality' relations. I argue that, although not all explanation is causal explanation, causal explanation is explanation par excellence from a semantic point of view. My forthcoming publications develop and defend the claim that the metaphorical senses of 'why' and 'because' at issue in metaphysical explanations are derivative of primary causal senses of those words.


Ambiguity and Explanation, forthcoming in Inquiry, doi:10.1080/0020174X.2016.1175379

Abstract: This paper presents evidence that ‘because’ is importantly ambiguous between two closely related senses covering what are usually called causal explanations, on the one hand, and grounding or metaphysical explanations, on the other hand. To this end, it introduces the lexical categories of monosemy, polysemy and homonymy; describes a test for polysemy; and discusses the results of the test when applied to ‘because’. It also shows how to understand so-called hybrid explanations in light of the semantic facts established by the analysis.

The Causal Metaphor Account of Metaphysical Explanation, Philosophical Studies, vol. 174, 553-578, doi:10.1007/s11098-016-0696-1

Abstract: This paper argues that the semantic facts about ‘because’ are best explained via a metaphorical treatment of metaphysical explanation that treats causal explanation as explanation par excellence. Along the way, it defends a commitment to a unified causal sense of ‘because’ and offers a proprietary explanation of grounding skepticism. With the causal metaphor account of metaphysical explanation on the table, an extended discussion of the relationship between conceptual structure and metaphysics ends with a suggestion that the semantic facts about ‘because’ tell against grounding-causation unity.

In Progress:

How General Can Theories of `Why' and `Because' Be?
Is Metaphysical Explanation Only Metaphorically Explanatory?
Explanatory Pluralism and Philosophy of Language 

Margaret Cavendish's Metaphysics

I am also actively working on Margaret Cavendish's metaphysics. I am especially interested in her notions of substance, her rejection of accidents, her anti-atomism, her doctrine of complete blending, and her theory of motion.


Part of Nature and Division in Margaret Cavendish's Materialism, forthcoming in Synthesedoi:10.1007/s11229-017-1326-y 

Abstract: This paper pursues a question about the spatial relations between the three types of matter posited in Margaret Cavendish's metaphysics. It examines the doctrine of complete blending and a distinctive argument against atomism, looking for grounds on which Cavendish can reject the existence of spatial regions composed of only one or two types of matter. It establishes, through that examination, that Cavendish operates with a causal conception of parts of nature and a dynamic notion of division. While the possibility of unmixed spatial regions is found to be consistent with both the doctrine of complete blending and Cavendish's anti-atomism by themselves, it is finally ruled out by a consideration of her theory of place. In fact, the geometrical question of the spatial relations between types of matter that drives the paper is ultimately exposed as illicitly mathematical from the perspective of Cavendish's metaphysics.

Other Completed Work:

Comments on Cavendish by David Cunning, Book Symposium, Pacific APA, Seattle, April 2017 (.pdf)

Abstract: My comments focus on Cunning's account of Cavendish as a mind-body interactionist. I argue that the question of mind-body interaction for Cavendish is really a question of how animate matter moves inanimate matter, and indicate two options for answering the latter question that Cavendish's texts suggest. 

In Progress:

Notions of Substance in Cavendish's Metaphysics

Other Publications

Hegel, Humility, and the Possibility of Intrinsic Properties (2011), Bulletin of the Hegel Society of Great Britain, vol. 63 (AKA Hegel Bulletin, vol. 32), 100-117, doi:10.1017/S0263523200000185

Abstract: Rae Langton (1998) offers a non-idealist interpretation of Kantian things in themselves according to which we have no knowledge of things in themselves – the intrinsic nature of things – just because our epistemic access to things is via their relational, non-intrinsic properties. Whatever the merits of her account as an interpretation of Kant's metaphysics, its plausibility presupposes the coherence of her notion of intrinsic properties. According to the account of intrinsic properties Langton uses, as we will see, there are only intrinsic properties if certain worlds are possible. Allais (2006) attacks one half of the modal intuitions on which Langton relies, but is adequately rebutted by Langton (2006). This paper discusses another, far more radical critique of the other half of the modal intuitions underlying Langton's account of intrinsic properties, intuitions which are also the basis of Langton and Lewis' (1998) account of the same. The account of intrinsicness under fire here depends on the possibility of objects existing alone in worlds in which no other objects (not counting their parts) exist. But according to Hegel's Logik, such worlds are simply not possible. To develop this critique, we cast a broad net by linking Langton (1998) with Lewis (2009) and Langton and Lewis (1998), and then consider (in a necessarily limited fashion) claims from the 1832, Lehre vom Sein in Hegel's Wissenschaft der Logik, which we consult in the edition of Hegel (2008). The primary aim of this paper is to offer a clear model of the modal error which Hegel purports to identify, and to show its application to Langton's work.

Valerie Kivelson and Jonathan Shaheen, Prosaic Witchcraft and Semiotic Totalitarianism: Muscovite Magic Reconsidered (2011), Slavic Review, vol. 70, 23-44, doi:10.5612/slavicreview.70.1.0023 [NB: I was first author, but Slavic Review lists authors alphabetically.]

Abstract: Studies of witchcraft belief and persecution in Russia have been profoundly, and to a significant degree mistakenly, shaped by European understandings of witchcraft as fundamentally demonic and integrally linked to the power of the devil. Gary Morson and Caryl Emerson’s concepts of “prosaics” and “semiotic totalitarianism,” derived from their readings of M. M. Bakhtin, offer a productive way to set imported preconceptions aside and to comprehend the specificities of Muscovite witchcraft beliefs. Pre-Petrine ideas about witchcraft conformed to no uniform, overarching ideological or explanatory schema, satanic or otherwise. Muscovite witchcraft operated instead as a diffuse, resolutely prosaic collection of beliefs and practices, whereas the more demonologically inflected European beliefs approached the imposed uniformity of “semiotic totalitarianism.” In this article, Valerie Kivelson and Jonathan Shaheen propose a corrective to a widespread propensity for reading Russian material through European paradigms and analyze Russian beliefs on their own, prosaic terms.